Eleven months into the pandemic, Jason Laviana of Torrington said he still has flashbacks of working at the supermarket during the worst of COVID-19 last year.
“I’d go to work every day and I’d sit in my car and pray,” said Laviana, who has Type 1 diabetes. “Honest to God, it was very scary.”
Like many grocery store workers across the state, Laviana was counting on receiving the coronavirus vaccine sooner. But his hopes were dashed Monday when Governor Ned Lamont announced that Connecticut would now be following an age-based vaccine rollout that prioritizes the elderly and educators.
“It’s a scary thing going to work every day. Just to have a light at the end of the tunnel and now being pushed back, it’s heart-breaking. Absolutely heart-breaking,” Laviana said.
Up until this week, “essential employees” were supposed to be included in Connecticut’s next phase of the vaccine’s distribution. That would have included grocery workers, transportation employees, service workers and others on the frontlines.
Lamont’s sudden shift to an age-based rollout goes against the advice of one of his vaccine subcommittees and counter to recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which suggest that essential workers, like those in grocery stores, be prioritized.
Lamont said in a press release that the age-based plan will curb the state’s vaccine shortage and boost an “equitable and efficient” distribution. Recent Department of Public Health data showed racial disparities in the rollout, with the vaccine going to about 3.4% of Black and 5.2% of Hispanic residents, compared to 56% of white residents. At a news conference Monday, he cited snowballing questions raised by the definition of “grocery store” as one reason for the move to strictly age-based vaccination waves.
Lamont said he started getting questions about whether grocery stores would also include convenience stores and big box stores that sell groceries.
“My goal is to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible, and I believe this is the best path to meeting that challenge,” Lamont said.
But supermarket employees disagree, saying they’ve already endured the brunt of COVID-19. They come in contact with thousands of people a week, and say they still handle a vocal minority of customers who refuse to adhere to safety protocols like mask-wearing and social distancing, and who, in turn, do not appreciate the risks that grocery store workers are taking.
“People aren’t following the rules like they did,” Joseph Jarmie of East Haven said, recalling how just recently, he had a customer tap him on the back. “You might as well put the arrows on the ceiling.”
Jarmie is afraid of bringing COVID-19 home to his 84-year-old mother-in-law. The vaccine was going to make working in a supermarket safer. While Jarmie understands that there’s an overwhelming demand for the vaccine, he feels more thought should have been put into the distribution plan before essential workers like him were omitted in the upcoming phase.
“[At the beginning of the pandemic], we were out there putting ourselves at risk every day, and we did it. We didn’t complain about it. We did what we had to do. But now a year later, we’re still doing it. We’re putting ourselves at risk every day, and we’re not getting a vaccine,” Jarmie said.
This is not an issue exclusive to Connecticut. Across the United States, grocery store workers are being delayed access to the coronavirus vaccine despite encountering hundreds of people a day and touching an array of surfaces.
United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Local 371 President Ronald Petronella said the union sees an average of 10 members a week coming down with COVID-19.
“My mother shops in supermarkets and everybody does. It can be a highly contagious place. [The members are] getting sick and they want to get vaccinated,” said Petronella.
Coupled with the physical danger is the mental toll. Sarah Peltier, who works in Simsbury, said emotional fatigue is rampant. She feels the distress of customers who cannot shop because of vulnerable family members and feels for her peers — one co-worker has not been able to see her father, and Peltier herself cannot see her mother who is 80.
The store at which Peltier works has also faced staff shortages as employees got tested for COVID-19 or had to undergo quarantine with their families. It all piles up, and the shift in vaccine distribution makes Peltier feel “disrespected, disregarded and minimized.”
“[Lamont] promised. I absolutely am shocked, stunned, amazed, saddened, frustrated, disappointed [and] angry that he has taken this course of action,” Peltier said, adding that unlike some educators, essential workers like supermarket employees can’t work remotely.
“I’m very sad that our value as workers, our value as people, has been diminished,” she said.